Media  Foreign Affairs and National Security  2023.03.31

The geopolitical trajectory of the Philippines is changing

Trilateral security cooperation between Japan, the Philippines and the U.S., once unthinkable, is now a reality

the Japan Times on March 8th, 2023

MANILA – Since I first visited the Philippines to see the U.S. Naval Base Subic Bay in November 1988, U.S.-Philippine relations have had their ups and downs.

It was when Mt. Pinatubo erupted in June 1991, and seriously damaging nearby U.S. bases, that the Philippine Senate refused to renew the 1947 Military Bases Agreement — forcing U.S. military personnel to withdraw from the the country.

More than 30 years have passed since. Returning to Manila this time, I was struck by a series of developments: a growing anxiety toward China among the populace, dramatic improvement in U.S.-Philippine relations and growing momentum to advance trilateral-security cooperation between Japan, the Philippines and the United States, which until a few years ago would have been only a dream.

Why has the U.S.-Philippine relationship improved so remarkably that military cooperation that includes Japan has become possible?

Just three months after the withdrawal of U.S. troops began in late 1991, China, in February 1992, enacted its Territorial Waters Law, which stipulates its own territorial waters that are marked by its self-declared “nine-dash line” in the South China Sea. At the time, I was deputy director for the Status of Forces Agreement Division of the North American Affairs Bureau at the Japanese Foreign Ministry.

I was a frequent visitor to the U.S. naval base in Yokosuka. I vividly remember one day asking a senior U.S. Navy official at the base if the situation would be all right even after the U.S. withdrew its forces from Subic Bay. The official immediately responded, “Don’t worry. It will be all right, because we have Yokosuka and Sasebo. It will be OK!”

Of course, it was not “OK.” The People’s Liberation Army Navy soon became increasingly assertive in the South China Sea, building military outposts on atolls claimed by the Philippines. In response, Washington and Manila concluded another Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) in 1998 and the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) in 2016, allowing the U.S. to use five bases in the island nation.

The withdrawal of U.S. forces in 1991 undoubtedly created a “power vacuum” in the South China Sea, allowing more aggressive actions by China.

However, 1991 was not the first time for such a power vacuum to emerge. According to my count, there are six similar incidents having taken place in the South China Sea since World War II.

The first was when the Imperial Japanese Navy ceased to exist in 1945, and the U.S. Navy moved in to fill the void after the war. The second vacuum was created by a famous speech by U.S. Secretary of State Dean Acheson in January 1950 that some say led to the 1950 Korean war. Unfortunately in that speech, and to our surprise, the secretary announced a line of defense that did not include the Korean Peninsula and Taiwan, which may have emboldened communist forces to attack.

The third vacuum followed the French military withdrawal from Indochina beginning in 1954 and the fourth was after the U.S. pulled its troops out of Vietnam in 1973. Similarly, the fifth vacuum was created by the withdrawal of Soviet military personnel from Cam Ranh Bay, Vietnam, in 1990 and the sixth came with the withdrawal of U.S. forces from the Philippines after 1991.

U.S. President Barack Obama, during his presidency, also failed to build a relationship of trust with his then Philippine counterpart, President Rodrigo Duterte. In fact, the current VFA at the time was almost ordered to be scrapped by the Philippine president. Thus, up to the present, whenever a strategic power vacuum emerged in the South China Sea, China has gradually and steadily expanded its maritime presence in the region.

The administration of President Ferdinand Marcos Jr., which took office last June, is likely to seek a return to the traditional U.S.-Philippine alliance. It comes at a time when the strategic priority of the U.S. seems to be shifting toward deterring aggressive actions by China in the Indo-Pacific, with a view to a possible Taiwan contingency. It is good to know that U.S.-Philippines relations seem to be entering a new phase of security cooperation.

In November, U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris visited the Philippines. And in early February this year, U.S. Secretary of Defense Austin announced that U.S. military personnel would have expanded access to four bases there. Furthermore, the two nations agreed to resume formerly suspended joint patrols in the region.

Beijing also contributed to the developments. In January this year, Marcos was invited to China as a state guest and signed 14 agreements as the Chinese business community expressed intentions to invest $22.8 billion in the Philippines. Nevertheless, Beijing is determined to change the status quo in the South China Sea by continuing to harass neighboring “small” countries.

In February this year, for example, a Chinese Coast Guard vessel blocked the path of a Philippine Coast Guard ship within the island nation’s exclusive economic zone while another Chinese vessel targeted a Philippine ship with a laser device. Marcos himself summoned the Chinese ambassador and lodged a protest, although a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson bluntly justified the Chinese action.

What I found most fascinating in Manila was the idea that security cooperation between Japan, the U.S. and the Philippines is gaining momentum these days. During the recent successful visit of Marcos to Japan, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and the Philippine leader agreed to continue to study ways to strengthen cooperation between the three nations.

For its part, Japan must take the lead to promote such a tripartite security cooperation while prudently taking into account the sensitive geopolitical position of the Philippines. China tends to look down on the Philippines and other states in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations as “small” countries. Japan has never done so. Tokyo always views Manila as a partner in making and guaranteeing a freer and more open and stable Indo-Pacific region.